On this day in 1864, members of the Virginia Military Institute‘s Corps of Cadets fought in their first, perhaps their only, battle. According to the Richmond Examiner, the Keydets acquitted themselves “splendidly.” The Richmond Whig was no less effusive: “The gallant young fellows have won a title to the thanks of the country.”
The Whig helpfully explained that the village of New Market, where the battle took place, “is in Shenandoah county, on the McAdam road, a little more than halfway from Winchester to Staunton.”* There, a hastily thrown-together Confederate force, commanded by John C. Breckinridge, clobbered Union troops under the German revolutionary Franz Sigel. He knew Marx and Engels, this Sigel, and in 1861 recruited his fellow Deutschlanders with the slogan, “I goes to fight mit Sigel.” Breckinridge, meanwhile, was a bit more aristocratic. As a candidate for United States president in 1860 he lost the state of Virginia by a mere 156 votes, and at New Market, he found himself in a similarly close contest.
As Sigel confidently told an aide, “I dinks we fight him a little,” Breckinridge reluctantly turned to his cadets, who had marched all the way up from Lexington. “They are only children,” he said of the eighteen-year-olds, but off they went anyway across a field so muddy many of them lost their shoes. On the other side, Sigel was acquitting himself less than splendidly, “all jabbering in German,” according to a witness. Eventually he retreated and literally burned the bridge behind him.
Ten “gallant young fellows” were killed in all, but not Thomas Staples Martin. The cadet and future United States senator had a cold and so stayed behind in Lexington.
* Bonus Historical Fact: The Scotsman John Loudon McAdam invented an early form of paving, hence “Macadamized” roads. Later, when they put tar on the macadam, you got tarmac.
IMAGE: From the VMI Archives: This painting, the work of artist Benjamin West Clinedinst (Class of 1880), depicts the charge of the VMI Corps of Cadets in the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. The painting, measuring 18 x 23 feet, is located in VMI’s Jackson Memorial Hall. It was unveiled in 1914.